Instagram and the iPhone have killed my blog. In this digital ‘social media’ age of immediate upload and instant feedback, my intended goal of writing at least 1 post a month in 2013 has been completely demolished. How many of these 12 posts have I managed to write in 2013? Zero.
What has finally motivated me to emerge from my blog slumber is the incredible year that I had. The adventures, the inspirations, the creativity and growth that encompassed every day of 2013 was something I wanted to share.
2013 was a year of renewal. It was the year that I moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo. There was a window of opportunity that presented itself at exactly the right time in my life- a new career, a new environment, a new lifestyle, a new perspective- what would life be if I wasn’t willing to follow my heart? I got to explore the country that I grew up in, calling Kagurazaka, my favorite part of Tokyo, my new home. Living in Japan has given me more opportunities to experience the culture that defines who I am and learn its complexities, its depth and its history. I took countless trips, met a lot of people and enjoyed a ton of food. There were many life changing meals and meaningful friendships that blossomed through those meals. Food connected me to more people than I could have ever imagined, every person enriching my life with their unique splash of colors.
Consequently, it was a year of renewal for Japan too. The year began with a pilgrimage to Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, known as ‘the realm of gods’. Then a visit to the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. 2013 was the year of the Shikinen Sengu, a rebirth and renewal ritual where the entire shrine is rebuilt from the ground up with new materials- cypress, copper and gold. The tradition, which goes back more than 1,200 years, occurs in 60 year cycles for Izumo Shrine and 20 year cycles for Ise Shrine. 2013 was just that year when the cycles overlapped for these two most sacred shrines in the country. It could not have been a coincidence that I decided to move to Japan at a time in my life and in Japan’s history that signified new beginnings.
I explored many facets of Japanese cuisine. Street food in Osaka. Mountain vegetables of Nagano. Contemporary kaiseki in Tokyo. Japanese knives in Gifu. Traditional wagashi desserts in Kyoto. Seafood in Hokkaido.
I was introduced to new foods that I had never even heard of, and new flavors that excited my palate. I ate out almost every day, taking in with my eyes and my appetite the incredible range of delicious food available at my fingertips. I was taught by Japanese chefs both young and old on the history of Japanese cuisine and given an intimate glimpse into the magic that happens in their kitchens. The dedication, verging on obsession, with which the Japanese treat every aspect of gastronomy is simply fascinating. There is a sincere intention behind every step of food preparation- one that simultaneously pays respect to the product and coaxes out its pure flavors. Discipline builds perfection, and reverence fosters beauty. It is no wonder that Japanese ‘washoku’ cuisine has been declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Here are some of the gastronomic highlights of my incredible 2013 journey through Japan.
ITALIAN BLACK TRUFFLE RICE– KADOWAKI かどわき (TOKYO)
Chef Toshiya Kadowaki works quietly behind the quaint 6 seat counter at his 2 Michelin star restaurant in Azabu Juban. His movements are also quiet- more like, precise. He moves through his kitchen with grace and ease, demonstrating not a millimeter of unnecessary superfluous movement. He is a master at incorporating Western ingredients into his cuisine which generally follows a traditional kaiseki sequence and style. The energy in the restaurant crescendoes when he prepares the grand finale of the meal- Italian black truffle rice. Kadowaki’s excitement for his signature dish is palpable in the way that he vigorously and unabashedly shaves copious amounts of black truffle over steamed white rice. That distinct truffle aroma fills the air and diners respond with oohs and aahs. It tastes just as one would imagine- like heaven.
SUPPON (SNAPPING TURTLE) LIVER AND SOUP- SAKUMA さくま (TOKYO)
There are many places in Japan to enjoy suppon cuisine, where snapping soft-shelled turtles are prepared in a bubbling broth that is said to have incredible health benefits. Sakuma in Akasaka is perhaps the most exclusive of them all, using a 330 year old traditional method of turtle preparation for their famous suppon nabe, cooked in a special Shigarakiyaki clay pot. The seasoning is simple- soy, sake and a smidgen of ginger- for the turtle meat infuses its intense flavors into the hearty broth that is rich with amino acids. The meat, incredibly tender, falls off the bones, and the quivering skin, popular amongst the ladies for its high collagen content and beauty benefits, melts like butter. For me, the highlight is the light and airy turtle liver, a delicate piece of foie that easily succumbs to my bite like meringue.
FOIE GRAS SANDWICH- L’AS ラス (TOKYO)
Chef Daisuke Kaneko’s 1-1/2 year old French restaurant in Aoyama was like a breath of fresh air in the Tokyo food scene. Diners immediately took to the casual vibe of L’As where the chef ditched the white tablecloths for simple sleek wooden tables, and offered affordable prix fixe menus that would be brought out from the beautiful open kitchen, course by course, by the chefs. The concept was simple but the flavors certainly were not. His signature foie gras sandwich, an ode to the famous Häagen-Dazs ice cream treat loved by all, was, for me, even better than the original. A thick block of rich foie gras sandwiched between crispy thin wafers and coated on the side with red wine and lemon cream still makes me scream for more.
MOROKO FISH- SHIGEYOSHI 重よし (TOKYO)
Shigeyoshi is, quite simply, my favorite restaurant in the world. The food stays true to traditional Japanese ‘washoku’ and nobody else does it quite like Chef Kenzo Sato. He depicts the very soul of Japanese cuisine, never steering from what is in season and never tampering a second more with an ingredient that is already a perfect creation of nature. I have been eating at this 2 Michelin Star restaurant for about a decade or so, and every single meal teaches me something new about Japanese cuisine. This year I enjoyed moroko, fish the size of my finger, only found in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Moroko are hard to come by these days, as the growing colony of black bass that have overpopulated Lake Biwa love to eat these little delicacies as much as I do. There’s a distinct bitterness to moroko that I absolutely love, and eaten whole from head to tail, it makes for a most wonderful ‘sake no tsumami’.
DEEP FRIED FUGU- YUKICHO 有希銚 (TOKYO)
January and February are the best months to enjoy fugu, pufferfish known for its lethal tetrodotoxin. One requires rigorous training and a special certificate to have the privilege of preparing this ocean delicacy. The flesh itself doesn’t have much flavor when prepared traditionally as sashimi, but it takes on a wonderful succulent texture and juiciness when battered and deep fried. Yukicho, an exclusive Japanese ryotei in the heart of Ginza with private ozashiki dining rooms, has been preparing fugu for more than 80 years. The current chef, Chef Ishii, carries on the restaurant’s tradition of unrivaled excellence in fugu cuisine. Better than fried chicken, a bite of this fried fugu will completely change your world. It changed mine.
ROASTED PIGEON WITH LIVER JUS- L’EFFERVESCENCE レフェルヴェソンス(TOKYO)
Chef Shinobu Namae has trained with some of the world’s best- Michel Bras in both Hokkaido and Laguiole, and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Now, in his Michelin-starred Azabu restaurant, he infuses his unique flair into beautiful dishes that marry classical French techniques with seasonal ingredients. Vendée pigeon roasted to perfection was served with an intense savory liver jus, with pea purée, broad beans, spring onions, Kiyomi mandarin marmalade and wood sorrel leaves. The icing on the cake when enjoying this memorable dish was the silver tray of Laguiole cutlery from which we could choose our knife du jour.
DENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (DFC)- DEN 傳 (TOKYO)
Michelin starred Den quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo for many reasons. First, the creativity. Dining out should be fun, interactive and memorable, and Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa makes sure that every guest that steps foot inside his Jimbocho restaurant enjoys the experience from beginning to end. He brainstorms daily with his staff about new ideas that could surprise and delight his diners, and loves to incorporate playful elements into all of his dishes. Dentucky Fried Chicken, aka DFC, is Den’s signature dish, presented in a specially designed ‘take-out’ box with a photo of Colonel Hasegawa. Out comes a mouthwatering deep fried chicken wing stuffed with seasonal ingredients- on a summer visit, my DFC wing was stuffed with almond, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and raisins. On an autumn visit, my wing was stuffed with a variety of mushrooms. This succulent chicken wing sure is finger lickin’ good.
DRIED AYU WITH LIVER- DEN 傳 (TOKYO)
Another reason for loving Den? The flavors. The overall vibe during a meal at Den may be playful and fun, but there is a reason why this popular restaurant maintains its Michelin stars. I still dream about this ayu course during a summer visit to Den, with ayu dried for 6 hours then grilled and eaten whole from head to tail. Tade (water pepper) leaves, which are usually paired with ayu, were incorporated into warm rice flour bread which I thoroughly enjoyed with the most delightful ayu liver pâté. To this day, I still talk about this dish and hope to experience it again next summer.
SANMA RICE WITH LIVER – DEN 傳 (TOKYO)
Den gets 3 spots on this year’s list for all of the times that I made a visit, and for what I love most about this fantastic restaurant- the hospitality. The staff at Den takes Japanese hospitality to a whole new level, treating every diner like family and going way above and beyond. When I dined here in the fall with The Spanish Hipsters to celebrate their nuptials, it quickly became apparent that the staff had been planning a special celebration for weeks. A lot of thought went into every detail of the meal to personalize it for the Hipsters, and we had a night to remember. Our experience included this sanma gohan, steamed rice with saury pike at its autumn peak with a luscious rich liver paste. We laughed, we ate, we toasted and drank, and the house mascot Puchi even came to join the party.
ROASTED ABALONE WITH LIVER- MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)
Mille Caresses. Where do I even begin. I stumbled upon this exclusive wine bar in Osaka by chance, and it felt like I hit the jackpot. There are tables in the back of the restaurant, but the action is at the bar counter where Sommelier Kibi works his magic. He wears special white gloves to handle truffles, keeps his wines cradled in padded baskets, and treats his customer with just as much respect- a true professional. I’ve had a lot of great abalone dishes in my life, but this one by Chef Youichi Kaito takes the prize. Roasted abalone from Shimane prefecture in abalone liver sauce was fantastic beyond belief. The abalone- tender, juicy and succulent with an ever so subtle char at the fringed edges- and that decadent liver sauce- buttery, rich and creamy with a depth of flavor too incredible for words- brought tears to my eyes.
WAGYU KATSU SANDWICH- MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)
The pure awesomeness that is Mille Caresses in Osaka was also felt in their signature dish, the wagyu katsu sandwich. Miyazaki wagyu tenderloin, breaded and deep fried to a perfect rare, then sandwiched between toast with a lovely sauce made from onions and fruits, was as tender as room temperature butter. The course even came with a certificate indicating that our cut of Miyazaki beef came from cow #13349653555. A dish to remember.
ATSUKAN (HOT SAKE) & REISHU (COLD SAKE)- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)
Ryugin keeps getting better and better, living up to its promotion to 3 Michelin stars. Chef Seiji Yamamoto runs a tight ship at his Roppongi restaurant where the service and the courses seem to flow effortlessly. A recent revisit was right up there as one of the best meals of my life, and the highlight for me was their autumn harvest sake dessert. I went back and forth with my spoon, enjoying both the silkiness of the cold amazake soft serve and the warm fluffiness (and such enticing aromas!) of the sake soufflé. The juxtaposition of temperatures and textures was both pure genius and pure pleasure.
HAMO IN ICHIBAN DASHI- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)
There is no ingredient that tests the knife skills of a chef more than hamo, pike conger eel, which has rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove. Only an experienced chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri (which means ‘bone cutting’ in Japanese), a process of making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin or destroying the flesh. When a properly incised piece of hamo is blanched in hot water, it should blossom like a chrysanthemum flower with perfectly even sections, and create a light and fluffy texture. The hamo by Chef Yamamoto at Ryugin was the most perfect demonstration of hamo workmanship that I have seen to date. It was stuffed with sweet caramelized kamo-nasu eggplant and served in a wonderful bonito ichiban dashi.
DEEP FRIED AYU, DAIKON, GINGKO- ISHIKAWA 石川 (TOKYO)
Ishikawa, right in my neighborhood of Kagurazaka, has maintained its 3 Michelin star status for some time. Located on a quiet cobblestone side street behind the famous Bishamon Temple, the food here stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki style, honoring seasonal ingredients and treating them with great care and utmost respect. Chef Hideki Ishikawa mesmerized me with this dish that symbolized the transition of summer to autumn- crispy deep fried ayu at the tail end of their season, mixed with grated daikon mizore ankake and plump lime green shin-ginkgo at the very start of their season. The overlap period of these 2 beautiful ingredients is very brief, and Chef Ishikawa created a successful and delicious mariage.
Many of Japan’s finest chefs have trained with Chef Haruyuki Takada at the legendary Takada Hassho in Gifu Prefecture. A trip to Gifu during the fall proved to be an incredible cultural experience for me, attending the knife festival in Seki, observing the ancient art of cormorant fishing on the river at dusk, and sharing a fabulous kaiseki dinner with friends at Takada Hassho. The signature dish is called ‘hari hari’, made with extremely thinly sliced potatoes (by hand, of course), lightly blanched, mixed with tobiko and rolled into a sphere like a ball of yarn. My tongue was absolutely delighted at the playful textures of this dish- the crisp sharp bite to the potatoes, interspersed with little pops of tobiko eggs. It was a perfect way to end a perfect weekend in Gifu.
TORO MILLE FEUILLES- SUSHISHO MASA すし匠まさ (TOKYO)
Of the thousands of sushi restaurants in Tokyo (did you know that there are more then 200 sushi restaurants in Ginza alone?) Sushisho Masa has quickly become one of my favorites, and the place that I recommend the most for visitors to Japan. I love the intimacy of the small space and the friendliness of the staff, but most of all, the mind blowing diversity of sushi that one gets to experience in one sitting. Chef Masakatsu Oka whips out more than 40 to 50 perfect little bites, taking the time to explain where each slice of fish came from and how he prepared it. His signature nigiri is what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’, 3 thin slices of pristine o-toro with a generous dab of wasabi in between, creating a triple layered mille-feuille that magically lightens the fattiness of the tuna while enhancing its exquisite flavors. The toro melts so quickly that it almost evaporates, leaving you begging for more.
GRILLED ABALONE WITH LIVER- GINZA MIYAMA 銀座みやま (TOKYO)
Prize winning Miyazaki wagyu from Iki Island is the specialty at Ginza Miyama, a teppanyaki steakhouse in the heart of Higashi-Ginza. We even got to see the special trophy that our cow had won prior to its slaughter. The marbled beef was incredible. However, what took my breath away that evening was the meaty abalone from Iki Island, still very much alive and squirming as it hit the sizzling hot teppanyaki plate in front of us. We watched in awe as the chef showed us the plump abalone liver- a deep magical green color so intense and bright that it was practically turquoise. ‘It’s the color of the seaweed in the waters around Iki Island that the abalone feed on’, the chef told us, as he sliced the abalone with his sharp knife and made a sauce with the liver and butter. The warm sauce, infused with the essence of this rich seaweed, was slathered over the tender abalone and served in its shell. Perfection.
MATSUTAKE TEMPURA- MIKAWA ZEZANKYO みかわ是山居 (TOKYO)
Chef Saotome has been perfecting tempura for as long as many of us have been alive, and he has been collecting art for as long as he has been alive. His restaurant, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Monzen-Nakacho, displays beautiful sake chokos, ceramic plates and calligraphy, of which he himself is a master. During the meal he stands under the cowboy hat vent, silently focused on frying each seasonal ingredient to just the perfect degree. Matsutake mushrooms bigger than my palm, with a spritz of sudachi and a dab of salt, were meaty, juicy and aromatic. Saotome is a man of few words but he speaks through his food, his calligraphy and his art- all of which convey his charisma and vivacity.
ROASTED BRETAGNE VEAL- ANIS アニス (TOKYO)
Chef Susumu Shimizu just opened this quaint adorable restaurant in Hatsudai a few months ago. The U shaped counter surrounds the open kitchen where he demonstrates the classical French techniques that he honed at L’Arpege for many years. 6 month old veal from Bretagne cooked in hay was sweet, milky and superb. His cuisine and style are both still evolving and I can’t wait to see what happens when he really hits his stride in 2014. He is, for sure, a young talent to keep an eye out for.
ABALONE LIVER RICE- SUSHI YOSHITAKE 鮨よしたけ (TOKYO)
The shari, the neta, the prep, the ambiance. Everything is flawless at 3 Michelin star Yoshitake in Ginza. I especially love Chef Masahiro Yoshitake’s shari, made with akazu vinegar that gives the rice a brown hue and a subtle unobtrusive flavor that harmonizes well with the seafood. It was highlighted in this course that came paired with a generous serving of tender steamed abalone from Karatsu. The abalone liver, with a vivid forest green hue, was made into a silky paste and served with a mini portion of shari. It was a joyous and delicious moment in my life.
GARGOUILLOU- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)
I had been meaning to visit Michel Bras in Hokkaido for a long time, and the stars aligned when I found out, when finally making my reservation, that it was the exact week when Chef Michel Bras himself was to make his annual visit. Ah, serendipity. Michel Bras cooking with Hokkaido ingredients was a true match made in heaven, and a food lover’s dream. His signature gargouillou of young vegetables, a celebration of Michel’s love for vegetables and herbs, was simply a joy. The ‘Terre’ dinner menu, a celebration of Laguiole, featured gargouillou with acacia oil, while the ‘Mer’ lunch menu, highlighting the seafood from Hokkaido, presented it with sansho oil. Both renditions were equally inspiring and lovely, like the maestro himself.
No matter who you are, what age you are, or how fancy of a restaurant you may be dining at, when an ice cream cart pulls up to your table, it has the same universal effect- our hearts flutter and we squeal with delight. At 3 Michelin starred Michel Bras in Hokkaido, the ice cream cart came with a killer view of Lake Toya and 5 different flavors- apple sorbet sprinkled with anise powder, walnut mousse with hazelnuts in a chocolate covered cone, herb sorbet with balsamic reduction, white chocolate mousse with crumbled pistachios in a chocolate covered cone, and mikan sorbet with crystallized mint. Needless to say, I had a moment.
KEIJI SALMON SUSHI- SUSHI HIDETAKA 鮨ひでたか (HOKKAIDO)
Where to have my one sushi dinner on a recent winter trip to Hokkaido was possibly one of the biggest dilemmas of the year. Hokkaido is a treasure box of seafood, and many delicacies are at their peak during the cold winter season. Choosing the right sushi restaurant for this trip was crucial. Thankfully, I chose well. Sushi Hidetaka in Sapporo is only a year old, but already quite the popular place. I sat next to a diner who flew from Tokyo just to eat here. Chef Hidetaka Yamada pampered me with the most incredible keiji salmon nigiri, a rare delicacy. Keiji, which means ‘infant salmon’, is a sexually underdeveloped salmon with an extremely high fat content (20-30%) but a light sweet flavor and silky smooth texture. Only 1 per 10,000 salmon caught are considered keiji, and they are usually only available during the end of November. Did it live up to its hype? Oh yes, yes indeed. It was the best salmon I have ever tasted.
GRILLED GINPOU- SHUBO SHINSEN 酒房しんせん (HOKKAIDO)
For my last dinner in Hokkaido, I chose this tiny old izakaya in the rowdy Susukino district run by Chef Shigeki Echigo. The darn cute smile of his greeted me as I walked through the front door, and I immediately knew that I was in for a treat. One would never guess, from the outdated decor and the down-to-earth casual vibe at the restaurant, that this place was awarded 2 Michelin stars in the 2012 Hokkaido special edition. I felt right at home with the Shinsen family who fed me with the best of Hokkaido’s bounties. He whipped out a beautiful piece of grilled ginpou for me; something, he said, he only does for special customers. Ginpou (which means silver treasure in Japanese) is an extremely rare fish, only found off the coast of Kushiro in southeastern Hokkaido, and only 200-300 are caught per year. The texture was light, airy and fluffy. The flavor, due to its extremely high fat content, was sweet yet delicate. I have never tasted fish like this before- it was phenomenal.
My culinary journey through Japan in 2013 was educational, inspiring and downright delicious. I got to really explore the complex maze of Tokyo- the nooks and crannies- and make new discoveries on every street corner. I saw the countryside, the lakes and oceans, and reveled in the stunning beauty of this country. I tasted, I learned and I absorbed a whole lot of new information, and I met some amazing people along the way. It was a year of renewal and personal growth for me, and I am thankful for all of the friends, both old and new, who shared these memorable meals with me. I look forward to continuing this adventure in 2014.
But first, I’ll be writing a post of my most memorable dishes of 2013 outside of Japan.